The title of this series was inspired by none other than impresario Bill Graham, who on the album Cheap Thrills introduced Big Brother and the Holding Company as “Four guys and one great, great broad.”
Readers of The Psychedelic Series know that I do not share that opinion of Janis Joplin, so in defense of the truly great broads of music, I decided to celebrate their contributions with a series. The original series explored the work of sixteen women artists from the United States, the U. K. and France.
The experience of researching the lives of those women led to my decision to abandon the blog for almost a year. Most had experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or some other life trauma. I needed some time to explore my own status as a woman in our modern world, acknowledge the brutality and discrimination many women face, figure out how to cope with it and identify the things I could do to change the situation.
The current version of Great Broads is largely a synthesis of two series I wrote on women in music. Later I added several standalone reviews of great women artists as well as the collections Early Girl 7″ Hits and Sexcapades. Many of the women I wrote about produced remarkable work while overcoming the institutional sexism of the music industry, societal stereotypes regarding the female role and their own personal demons.
Graphic: Young Woman with Lyre, Leopold Schmutzler
Ah, college! Those glorious days of drunkenness, debauchery and decrepit, deteriorating dorms! The dorms were so shitty that a girlfriend and I lived off campus the last two years, and that’s when things really got hot and heavy. During my first real period of independence, I majored in eroticism and minored in music. Sex and music! What could be better?
Unfortunately, the college administrators refused to recognize fucking as a legitimate field of study, so I had to stop every now and then to attend classes in International Relations so I could get my degree, prove to the world that I had brains and justify all that money I borrowed from the government (and have yet to pay back in full).
Details was one of the albums playing in the soundtrack of my life back then, and it proved to be one of the albums that had the greatest influence on me. Thanks to Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth, I was finally able to articulate what motivated my desire to dominate the male half of the species.
I don’t think that’s what they had in mind.
My natural tendency is to take the lead and dominate intimate relationships. With chicks, triggering my sexual aggressiveness is easy. Chicks are hot! Female beauty activates desire and desire activates my dominance.
Guys, on the other hand, are kind of silly looking, and they don’t have tits or twats to provide additional options for entertainment. All they have is that ridiculous looking thing that’s flailing about aimlessly, disappearing into their balls or standing at attention as if expecting a salute. Don’t get me wrong, I love the feel of a penis inside me, and I’m not at all particular about size. They’re also fun to whack from time to time, though you have to be careful not to damage that sensitive skin encasing the blood flow or the little buddy will shrink into oblivion. Men are so fragile! Women can take so much more!
Anyway, during those years I began to wonder if my attraction to males had more to do with cultural norms than desire. Not that a kid growing up in San Francisco is saddled with too much in the way of heterosexual expectations, but still, San Francisco is a little piece of America and most Americans still prefer to see a man and a woman atop the wedding cake. I knew what I liked about the sexual experience with women, but even though I seemed to like having sex with guys, the exact words to describe what I liked about it continued to escape me. If all it came down to was clitoral-vaginal stimulation, I knew of plenty of excellent vibrators available on the market that would have allowed me a comparable level of satisfaction without all the noise of male insecurity.
The song that clarified it all for me is the first song on Details, “Let Go.” I don’t know if Imogen Heap was singing about letting go of one’s bullshit, letting go of one’s hang-ups or letting go of repressed emotions, but I tailored her message to fit my specific needs:
So, let go, let go
Oh well, what you waiting for?
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
So, let go, let go
Just get in
Oh, it’s so amazing here
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
There’s beauty in the breakdown. That’s what I love about fucking a guy: the moment when he gives it up. A hard cock makes a guy feel strong, manly and arrogant. Arrogance is just a mask for vulnerability, and I love ripping away that mask. All it takes is a look, a move, a word, or me playing with my tits in a certain way while I coldly and completely ignore his strenuous efforts . . . and he gives it up, every time. I love the feel of a penis collapsing inside me. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Frou Frou was a one-time collaboration between Ms. Heap and Mr. Sigsworth, who had worked together before with the band Acacia and on her first album, I Megaphone. The name of the band comes from a poem by my favorite poet, Rimbaud (“frou frou” is onomatopoetic for the swish of a lady’s skirt). While Details did not sell particularly well, several of the songs would eventually find their way to spots in movies and television shows, most notably in the film Garden State. Since I generally avoid both movies and television, my path to the music was a bit odd. I bought the CD solely based on the name of the group because I recognized “frou frou” from the Rimbaud poem. I was both thrilled and relieved when I first sat down to listen to it. Details is a kaleidoscope of natural and electronic sound grounded in hypnotic melodies, memorable choruses and stimulating lyrics . . . and one of the few albums that I never tire of. It’s romantic, erotic and extremely pleasing to mind, body and soul.
“Let Go” opens with strings in the far distance, rising in volume until the curiously breathy and disarmingly innocent voice of Imogen Heap enters the mix. Her delivery is also unusual, somewhat on the staccato side, breaking down the syllables into tiny pinpoint bursts of sound with an uncanny sense of emotional timing. The build-up of strings and voice continues up to the first chorus, where the programmed rhythm section kicks in. Even with all the electronica, the music is full of life and the patterns are varied enough to create a very captivating and comforting soundscape. Much is made of Imogen Heap’s classical training, and while its influence shows here in the strength of the structure, the vocal flows in a less measured, more natural pace to give the piece a very human feel. Guy Sigsworth is classically trained as well, and I think the advantage Frou Frou had over many electronic artists is that they apply this training by exercising a very selective approach to sound. They don’t often muck things up.
“Breathe In” picks up the tempo slightly, a pleasing little number made more interesting by the scattered lyrics reflecting the scattered state of the narrator, flustered by a relationship and communicating in fragments. It’s a nice song, but I was surprised to learn that they chose this for the lead single, as there are better songs on the album. One of these is the fabulous “It’s Good to Be in Love,” featuring a wonderfully expressive vocal from Imogen that reflects the “falling” part of love, similar to Ani DiFranco’s “Falling Is Like This.” Her phrasing here is perfect: in the line, “When all of my clothes feel like somebody’s old throwaways” she inserts a microscopic pause between “old” and “throwaways” to give that word more velocity and a strong sense of her distaste and embarrassment.
Another strong number with fascinating use of breathy loops and swirling synth is “Must Be Dreaming,” a song loaded with ecstatic phrases of unbridled passion. The freedom one feels in love has rarely been celebrated more joyously:
The mood turns very, very dark with “Psychobabble,” a song where the female narrator is trying to end a relationship with someone who is a borderline stalker or date rapist. The ugliness of the moment is highlighted with slightly dissonant strings and the use of bells similar to Mike Oldfield’s work on Tubular Bells. “Only Got One,” refers to life, of course, and the human tendency to waste life energy on façades; this is the only track where I feel the drums are a too mechanical, despite their intensity.
My personal favorite (after “Let Go,” of course) is “Shh,” a wonderful song about a spontaneous intimate encounter that extends to the deeper belief that a loving relationship can form a sanctuary against a cold and demanding world:
Sunbeam stop tugging me
Pull that door shut quietly
Darling, what are you doing?
We don’t have time for this!
Crazy? Well ,what are you then?
Give me an hour and I’ll give you your dream . . .
Don’t make a sound–shh—listen
Keep your head down—we’re not safe yet
Don’t make a sound and be good for me
‘Cause I know they’re waiting somewhere out here.
This is the track with the most pulsing and steady rhythm, easily the strongest groove on the album, and it clears the way for the melody and harmonies to take flight. Imogen’s panting vocal on the syllables “Mmm dey mmm da mmm daaeeoo” is as pleasant an experience as listening to Ella Fitzgerald do scat.
“Hear Me Out” is a delightful exercise in soft romantic pop, with vivid lyrics that break with the schmaltzy tradition of the genre (“The smile I fake, the permanent wave of cue cards and fix-it kits/Can’t you tell I’m not myself?”). The vocals on the chorus, forming a sort of call-and-response pattern, are sheer delight. “Maddening Shroud” is also traditional pop made more lively by very clever panning on the sweet vocals. “Flicks” is still another catchy number with an Arab-flavored synth providing more diversity to the production. Details ends with the stark piano introducing “The Dumbing Down of Love,” a track that has the quiet of a Roberta Flack number but falls a bit short in its ability to evoke a comparable level of emotion.
Though Frou Frou would pass into history after this single album, Imogen Heap’s subsequent albums have earned her international recognition as one of the leading innovators in the use of electronics and software in music and in the collaborative possibilities of modern technology. And despite the stereotype of electronic music as a cold, robotic experience, Imogen Heap has never lost touch with her humanity, and her work continues to feature songs that explore what it means to be human, vulnerable and forever in formation. Details is the place where this fascinating journey took seed.